As I transition into retirement and reflect on almost 42 years as an educator in Sullivan County, I realize how much I’ve grown as a teacher and leader. Leadership has its challenges, and I have learned that while taking care of the needs of others, you can’t ignore your own. While I have often focused on building the knowledge and skills of others, I sometimes neglected my own professional learning.

I learned an important lesson in the summer of 2015. One month into my tenure as director of schools in Sullivan County, devastating TNReady scores led to the realization that we quickly had to do something dramatically different for our students. Based on the data, we saw a need to focus on literacy.

With a background in secondary education, I lacked training regarding how children learn to read. Fortuitously, I had recently joined a group of innovative superintendents from across the state called the LIFT network. We were seeking a problem of practice to address collectively and decided that literacy was the most urgent need for us all. After studying current practice in our districts and poring through research, we decided to place excellent instructional materials in the hands of teachers.

At the end of the 2015-16 school year, I invited three of our elementary schools to engage in a pilot of more rigorous instructional materials. Together with the principals and teachers, we looked at options, and our teachers decided to pilot the Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) curriculum. 

CKLA addresses both knowledge-building through complex read-alouds and foundational skills development through systematic phonics instruction. We chose to utilize both components in every K-2 classroom in our pilot schools. The work was not easy, but after a few months of job-embedded professional learning and support for everyone involved, our teachers began to see a significant difference in the performance of our students, and our teachers’ enthusiasm spread like a fire.

Based on this early success, in 2017-18 we expanded the pilot to all of our elementary schools and also added fourth and fifth grade. As we begin this school year, all of our K-5 ELA teachers across our elementary schools are using the new instructional materials and receiving support to understand them, prepare for instruction using them, and to deliver excellent lessons aligned with our vision for literacy instruction. Year after year teachers and parents come to our board meetings to share testimonials and show support for our literacy strategy and the role of strong instructional materials.   

The hardest part for us has been the “wait.” Change is hard, and results are not always immediate. We saw great improvements in our RTI data, but we still needed the validation of TNReady results. Our TNReady scores from this spring have proven that what we have been working so hard to implement is working! 

In 2018-19, we achieved our best-ever ELA assessment results. Our district is a Level 5 in TVAAS growth in literacy, and achievement levels have increased across the board by more than 10 percent in some schools. Of the 22 schools in our district, every school exceeded growth expectations by earning a Level 3 or higher in literacy.

I have learned that change must be an intentional process with direction and leadership. As leaders, we must be prepared to also listen and learn.

I can’t think of a more powerful gift than teaching a child to read. I’m thankful to have been a student in SCORE’s classroom; I am certainly a better instructional leader as a result of having been there and can honestly say, this collaboration over the past four years has been the best professional development ever for me. 

Together with other “mentor districts” from across the LIFT network, Sullivan County is proud to have contributed lessons learned to LIFT’s Instructional Materials Implementation Guidebook. The guidebook outlines our recommendations for how to best introduce and scale up the implementation of rigorous instructional materials. 

Eveyln Rafalowski recently retired as director of Sullivan County Schools.

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